Director: Jenifer Areng Datta
Writer: Jenifer Areng Datta
DOP: Shreya Dev Dube
Editor: Prithviraj Dasgupta
Cast: Trimala Adhikari, Vinay Pathak, Ram Menon, Heena D’souza
Streaming on: YouTube
The hallmark of a competent short film is that the viewer immediately wishes it were a feature-length film. We want to see more – the before, the after, the during – and hope for the expansion of a condensed universe. But the hallmark of a standout short is its exclusive identity. The viewer can’t imagine the story in any other form. The economy of the narrative is in fact its biggest asset. A single scene does the work of a lifetime. The ambiguity, the hidden histories, the subtext, the awkward silences, the subtle gestures – the unspoken becomes the language of the film.
Tear, written and directed by Jenifer Areng Datta, is a fine example. There are a million moments contained within every moment. Tear is about the mental language of trauma, which by nature suits the short format because a long-form medium inherits the luxury of reflection – a luxury that a survivor with suppressed memories cannot afford. At its core, Tear is like a murder mystery in a house with four characters; only, the corpse is alive to remember who killed her.
The film opens with Nina, a young woman who has moved into a new apartment. The boxes are still unpacked. There’s just one sofa. The sparse lighting, too, is makeshift. Her small housewarming party is reluctant – the guests feature her father, a cousin brother and a colleague. After some liquid courage, she is encouraged to open one of the boxes. She finds her childhood diary, and reads out a few passages. She doesn’t remember writing the entry addressed to someone who “tore off her dress with wide eyes”. The next one is about her hating everything and not wanting to attend school. It dawns upon the four people in the room – including Nina herself – that Nina was abused. The father is drunk. The colleague is shocked. The cousin is strange.
Films about sexual abuse often find resolution in the drama of confrontation. The victim has a say, the villain meets his reckoning. But such events are, unfortunately, the exceptions to the rule. A majority of the cases involve a discomforting undercurrent of truth, with everyone in denial and nobody willing to speak out. It eats away at souls, leaving them hollow. Tear is midway between epiphany and denial: Nina knows but she doesn’t want to know. The performances are calibrated to evoke an uneasiness that forces the viewer to read the unsaid: Nina’s gait around her father, his (closeted) alcoholism, his immediate reaction to the diary entry, the words, the cousin’s change of tone, the colleague’s curiosity. There’s a sense of guilt and mystery in the air; the treatment urges us to scrutinize every action. Trimala Adhikari is unnerving as Nina; it’s hard to tell the actor from the character. Vinay Pathak’s turn as the father is one of his best in a long career. It’s not easy to play a drunken man with depth: just about sober enough to maintain a facade and just about tipsy enough to be an ignorant parent.
Tear succeeds in making the average Youtube viewer so uncomfortable that they can’t distinguish between an unsavoury film and a film about an unsavoury situation
The choice of setting – a housewarming party – makes sense because a new home is the physical manifestation of moving forward and, at times, moving on. Yet, Nina is dragged back, still trapped in the boxes of her mind. The camera, too, feels like an intruder meddling in a family affair, determined to zero in on an awakening. A frame towards the end is particularly expressive: Nina’s sitting on her bed, knees to her chest and hiding from herself, with the cousin Ronny seated opposite her and the drunk father standing at the door with a cigarette dangling in his mouth. The shot is wide, creating the illusion of a painting of a little girl with two wolves in her bedroom. The absence of a background score goes a long way in letting our minds draw conclusions bereft of narrative cues.
The title, too, is clever. Just like most moments of the film, both its meanings – the teardrop kind and the torn-dress kind – hold true at once. After streaming the film, I was surprised to see that, unlike most good shorts, more than 25 percent of the viewers had “disliked” the video. The proportion felt a bit off. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that maybe there’s no higher compliment than this skewed reaction. Tear succeeds in making the average Youtube viewer so uncomfortable that they can’t distinguish between an unsavoury film and a film about an unsavoury situation. Most people aren’t conditioned to acknowledge domestic horrors in plain sight. Denial is a default emotion in Indian households – as a result of which Tear for many looks like nothing more than an awkward movie about a party ending too early. After all, so many parties go on for years: behind closed doors and in broad daylight.